Design excellence in structural engineering is achieved when its critical scientific and mathematic calculations do more than make a building stand up strong, but when they come together creatively to make the human spirit soar in the experience of place. There is a lot of how behind the wow.

Award juries of annual structural engineering honors can feel it too, even as they can better see and appreciate the technical harmony of forces and materials that make some built spaces sing. Wight & Company’s structural engineering team led by Matt Aquino has been a consistent winner of awards of excellence from their state and national peers.

Matt and team were most recently honored with the “best project” award by the Structural Engineers Association of Illinois (SEAOI) for their elegant design of a “floating” roof over the Downers Grove North High School’s new Learning Commons – a cost-conscious complete reimagination and transformation of the student experience.

The Student Commons was created by capturing an unused courtyard between two buildings, a 1956 concrete structure, and the original 1928 brick building. Innovative structural engineering demonstrated its power to dramatically transform an empty space into an inviting, daylight-filled hub at the heart of the school that encourages natural interaction and collaboration among students, staff, and the community.

“We wanted to put learning on display and pique student curiosity using a light and unique roof structure that fuels imaginative thinking and adds to school character and identity in a complete space where students and faculty want to be, linger and collaborate,” Aquino says.

As part of a taxpayer-referendum initiative, creating the most value and staying under budget inspired the team to push the envelope of innovation in design, fabrication, testing, and construction, which they achieved through simplification, repetitiveness, and quality materials.

The roof’s eight trusses were identical and designed for easy transportation and installation. A steel frame perimeter, flexibly connecting the existing buildings above the roofline, was fitted for ease of erection with simple saddle connections into which the prefabricated trusses were lowered and locked.

Using Wight’s Design Led Design Build approach, the team worked with the steel fabricator to create, model, and inspect the structural components and connections prior to delivery, which is a whole separate story of in-time and within-budget innovation.

But the star of the show is the steel and glass roof which appears to float above the 65-foot trusses aligned in an X-shaped, three-dimensional configuration. The reason it appears to float freely is because the connections of the roof to the structural elements beneath it were designed to be out of sight. Allowing just the right amount of daylight through glass skylights to fill the space in a non-blinding way was derived through geometric calculation. Trying to achieve the effect using only glass – not steel and glass – would have been too expensive.

Community High School District 99 and its taxpayers received value beyond their expectations through the design excellence of Wight’s structural engineers, and the students say their Learning Commons is “awesome.”